Wednesday, September 21, 2016

It is time for Danish politicians to form an opinion on IT projects in the public sector

As in most other countries, public IT projects have a bad reputation in Denmark. It seems that most people think that the public sector is horrible at doing IT projects (much worse than the private sector), and that the majority of public sector IT projects fail.

This perception is caused by a number of very big IT projects failing, causing not only the loss of the money put into them, but also the loss of state revenue, due to necessary IT infrastructure not being in place in order to e.g. ensure that tax refunds are paid correctly.

In my opinion, the public perception is wrong on two areas:
  1. The public sector is no worse than the private sector at doing IT projects.
  2. The majority of public sector IT projects go well.
The reason for both of these misperceptions is that people don't hear about projects that fail in the private sector, nor about IT projects in the public sector that does well.

But even with this caveat, there is no doubt that there is uncomfortable large number of IT projects that fail in the public sector, having a negative impact on the Danish economy.

Given this, I think it is remarkable how little the Danish political parties seem to care about IT projects in the public sector.

The politicians generally seem to care only on the most superficial level, saying that the public sector need to get better at doing IT. If they go beyond that, they generally focus on ensuring that laws are not getting in the way of implementing new IT systems and work rutines.

I think it is great that they are willing to take a look at how the laws in a given area might get in the way of eg. digitalization, but this is not enough. The head of the Danish Business Authority, which has just gone through a fairly succesful five year modernization program, has stated that it is frequently not laws that gets in the way, just interpretations and existing workflows.

It is often not clear that the interpretations and workflows will get in the way of development of the new systems, before the actual development work starts.

So, in other words, it is not enough that politicians look at the laws, they also have look at fostering an environment, where it is not only OK, but pretty much required, for public servants to reevaluate interpretations and workflows. For this to be possible, it is necessary to get them directly involved in the IT projects, not only as end-users, but also as sparring partners for the developers. This requires that resources are put aside for this.

Another area where I'd like politicians to focus, is creating an environment where different ministries, departments, and agencies learn from one another. There are some great attempts at this on the local level (eg. some departments look around at other departments to see what works before they start up), but it has to be structured better, and the responsibility anchored in one place.

There are a lot of experience spread across the different ministries, departments and agencies, but all too often it cannot be easily located, and each IT project is cause of re-learning everything from scratch.

A good attempt of drawing on the experiences of others, is the use of IT-projektrådet to evaluate the risks of IT projects larger than 10 million kroner and to follow up on high risk projects.
This is only done to federal projects however, and not on projects on the municipality level or regional level, even when they are much larger than 10 million kroner.

Obviously there are other areas where politicians could, and should, form an opinion on IT projects in the public sector, but I think that the areas mentioned above are some of the more important ones.

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